In the third installment in my “Coming Youth Ministry Reformation” series, I’d like briefly touch on the topic of integration. Specifically, how youth ministries and churches alike should not operate as separate entities but as the Body of Christ.
For too long many of our youth groups have functioned somewhat autonomously, drawing resources and staff from the larger congregations of which they are officially a part while having little other connection to the local church. In this model, budget, curriculum, pastoral leadership, activities, and even vision can tend to be very distinct from the rest of the church. While there are sometimes moments of “coming together” for youth group and adult congregation over the course of the year, many of these can be superficial and few are lasting.
Youth ministry experts have long referred to this model of ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” and raised questions about its practice: disconnecting youth from the life of the entire Church, modeling an unbiblical picture of the body of Christ, and eschewing multigenerational opportunities in favor of more peer-based activities. While the separate “youth group” setup we’ve developed has risen out of a desire to do some important age-specific ministry, the effects have been that we are potentially limiting opportunities for discipleship and ministry.
The gap between “big church” and “youth group” can be so wide in so many ways that students can have little desire to be a part of the former, whether they are 15 or 25. Inadvertently, then, we may be sowing the seeds for faith frustration and immaturity in adolescents, all while thinking we’re doing a good job because we have what appears to be a successful youth ministry.
I’m not really saying anything new here. The problems and danger I’ve mentioned have been known and discussed for some time. Sadly, I don’t feel that many of our churches have done enough about it. (I know I didn’t when I was a youth pastor.) If anything, some have embraced a flawed model even more–at least in terminology. I have to admit that every time I see the phrase “youth church” to describe a local church’s ministry to adolescents, I have to cringe. I mean no disrespect to those who have such a name and am not trying to attack any fellow ministry laborers, but I do want to ask a few questions. Is this representative of how you understand things, with a separate church for teens and adults? Does this make any sense, biblically or theologically? Even if you would say that “it is just a name,” doesn’t the phrase itself set the stage for unhelpful and potentially damaging ways of thinking about the Church?
Some, so frustrated with the modern youth ministry enterprise, have decided to forgo all age-segregated ministries in favor of what they call a family-based model. While I do not endorse their approach because I think there is some importance to life stage ministry, I understand what they are reacting against. The traditional youth ministry model has created a lot of “one-eared Mickey Mouses.” The outward success of such ministries has made a lot of youth pastors feel satisfied with their work. But the cost of such developments—to the body of Christ and to the students under our care–may be far more than we realize.
It will be hard for many churches in this persistent model to being to think differently, but they must. The church belongs together. “Youth church,” in name and actuality, should fade in favor of a more integrated and body-like pattern.